Maro Itoje of England looks on during the 2020 Guinness Six Nations match between Italy and England at Olimpico Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Rome, Italy. Sporting stadiums around Italy remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
England star Maro Itoje has joined a band of players, coaches and observers who have supported the decision to keep the British & Irish Lions tour in South Africa.Yet even if that symbolism is a morale boost for all involved, the 26-year-old lock has cautioned that the series will still require much sacrifice from all involved.Itoje is very excited to potentially measure himself against the Springboks group of top second-rowers again.Maro Itoje is undeniably one of world rugby’s superstars, a prototype for the youthful and decorated athlete that relentlessly strives to maintain excellence.
Yet, even in this ruthless era of professionalism, the 26-year-old England lock has the heart of a traditionalist, particularly when it comes to the British & Irish Lions brand.
That explains why he joins a band of players, coaches and observers who fully support last week’s announcement that this year’s series between the Springboks and the composite team will still take place in South Africa.
“It’s in line with the traditions of the Lions brand,” Itoje told Sport24 in an interview organised by American sports equipment giant, Under Armour, who’ve added him to their global athlete roster.
“Let’s be honest, the Lions is a touring team. It’s players and coaches are meant to go on the road. With that in mind, this keeps that tradition alive. Obviously, depending on selection and we all still need certainty on that, every player will tell you the most important thing is that the tour is still going on.
With the Covid-19 pandemic having necessitated world sport to adapt in all sorts of ways, hosting the series on African soil is arguably a small victory in the name of “normality”, but Itoje has enough first-hand experience over the past year to know that that symbolism can’t hide the fact that – in all likelihood – the marquee event will have a strange feel to it.
As things stand, no fans will be allowed.
“I guess hosting the series in South Africa is a positive, but there’s still going to have to be a lot of adaptation for everyone involved,” said Itoje, who started two of the Lions’ three Tests in 2017’s drawn series with the All Blacks.
“Things are definitely not going to be business as usual. SA Rugby will undoubtedly have to implement a whole lot of things to ensure that the effects of Covid-19 are mitigated.
“Nonetheless, it’s still an incredibly exciting prospect. The Lions have this incredible ability to bring communities, countries and teams together. Deeply tribal rivalries are left at the door. Fingers crossed, I’d love to be a part of that.”
Naturally, Itoje would also love to once again test himself against the Springboks’ world-class factory of locks, who are currently prominent in the English Premiership and in Europe.
It’s ironic though that he hasn’t been able to land some preliminary “blows” against his SA counterparts – Lood de Jager, Cobus Wiese, Jannes Kirsten, RG Snyman (in the Champions Cup) – due to Saracens relegation for salary cap breaches.
“As a player, I love the competition,” said Itoje.
“I relish playing against top, top players and I believe they bring out the best in me. You always want to be challenged and everyone knows what type of quality South Africa possesses. It will be an interesting opportunity.”
Away from the field, Itoje is now following in the footsteps of many other athletes, the most notable recent example being Manchester United star Marcus Rashford, who take social responsibility very seriously and his association with UA has assisted him greatly in tackling educational inequality in the UK.
“I’m really proud to be associated with the brand. A key aspect of our partnership is to give back to communities, to make a difference,” he said.
“But it’s not confined to the UK. Nigeria (his parents’ country of birth) is very close to my heart and they stand to benefit too.”